I'm researching some aviation slang terms. I have difficulty in finding the origin of the following words and phrases. I would be grateful if you can help me. The words and the phrases and their meanings are:

  • Kick the tires and light the fires = take off
  • Cookers = afterburners
  • Bird = a plane
  • Copy Shot = acknowledged
  • Dirty up = Lower the undercarriage
  • Hot rock = hotshot= a highly skilled pilot
  • Chop and drop = bring the power to idle and descent rapidly
  • Running on fumes = near the point of total fuel exhaustion
  • Conga line = a long queue of airplanes
  • Dry/wet feet = it alerts ATCs when a military aircraft is flying over water/ over land.
  • Bag= flight suit
  • $\begingroup$ That's going to be a tough one. I would say most of these terms originated in the military in the 40s and 50s. Suggest contacting USAF public relations to ask if there is any historical guidance from them, or if they can steer you somewhere useful. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jul 15, 2021 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ The History or English language sites might be a better bet. FWIW, I wouldn't say that any of those are in wide use in aviation. (Maybe in some branch of the military?) The only one I've heard - "running on fumes" - has been in an automotive context, not aviation. And of course "conga line" as related to dancing, but there it's hardly slang. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 15, 2021 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ You want exact origins, or just what they relate to? Finding the origin of most of those will be impossible, as they date back so far, that the "inventor" of the phrase can't be verified. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jul 15, 2021 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Val: If you do know what they mean, perhaps you could edit that information into your question? I doubt that I'm the only one who has no idea what most of them are supposed to mean. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 15, 2021 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Jpe61, I agree. I want to thank everyone who has tried to help me. $\endgroup$
    – Val
    Jul 16, 2021 at 18:12

1 Answer 1


I have made this answer a community wiki, so we can avoid pointshopping and flood of conflicting answer. Only edit this if you are sure of what you think you know.

Kick the tires and light the fires

This phrase refers to the pre flight inspection, kicking the tires, a pilot performs on his/her aircraft before hopping in and starting the engines, the fires part comes from old planes having very short exhaust manifolds, so flames could often be seen at the tips of the headers on startup with fuel priming and rich fuel setting.



Planes fly, birds fly; planes have wings, birds have wings, need we dig in more...

Copy Shot

Copy Shot = Unknown, although maybe referring to a carrier catapult launch or an aircraft missile launch.

This may come from a multi-aircraft flight during combat, or while flying top cover where an aggressor situation happens. "Lined up for a shot" (missile lock), then "missile's away" (launched missile) and the flight wingman might respond "copy shot" acknowledging the other plane has launched a missile.

May also relate to an aircraft carrier, where being launched from a catapult, is being "shot."

Dirty up

Dirty or Dirty Up = Extension of gear, hook, flaps, etc. for slow speed flight or landing

Flying clean means that as much of the components are retracted or flush as possible, allowing for clean air flow. Dirtying up refers to the acts of preparing for flying slow, or landing. Deploying the slats, flaps, landing gear, tailhook, etc.

Also used during the Vietnam conflict by pilots of small reconnaissance plans while flying slow and (relatively) low while searching for downed pilots, to let the controllers know they were beginning the search and more vulnerable.

Hot rock

Chop and drop

Simple combination of chopping power and dropping altitude. "To chop" is slang for "to cut", with "cutting" refering to "cutting power", therefore reducing power to zero. Dropping altitude is self explanatory, meaning to quickly reduce altitude. I imagine this phrase was formed like this because it rhymes.

Running on fumes

I would not call this one slang as it is basically a literal translation. In general it means to keep going when you have no energy left. It broadly comes from engines that ran on vaporous fuels; piston engines and the such. Most fuel tanks that hold liquid fuel have some sort of a float which reads the level, the phrase comes from the idea of running the tank "dry" or empty to the point where the float bottoms out (or reads empty) but the engine still runs. Its based on the loose idea that the free area in a fuel tank is filled with vaporous fuel and you could run the engine on the vapors at the end of your fuel tank since the final step of most fuel systems is to vaporize or atomize fuel anyway.

Ironically many modern planes may very well have a fuel inerting system that would quite literally prevent you from running on fumes. A lot of fuel pumps are also cooled by the fuel that flows through them so starving a pump of liquid fuel can cause it to burn out.

Conga line

Conga line is a dance people engage in when they have consumed enough alcohol to impair their judgement. The "dancers" form a line, holding the next one on the waist, and they proceed more or less rhytmically more or less forward in what can best be discribed as a squigly manner.

With aircraft, a conga line is a formation of aircraft, proceeding at a common general heading one after another, but not in a military like precicion when it comes to distancing and track.

Dry/wet feet

Feet Wet : Flying over water
Feet Dry : Flying over land

These two phrases were used extensively during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars by pilots when they flew into the country (feet dry) and then upon returning to their carrier or air base, calling "feet wet" as they passed the coast and flew over the ocean.

Bag= flight suit

Use of Bag to describe the flight suit comes from its saggy fit. The fabric, at least in older ones, was certainly not stretchy, so the form of the suit had to be such, that it felt comfortable when sitting and operating knobs, buttons and such in cockpit. This, unfortunately, made the suits look saggy and baggy when the pilot was posing heroicly by the aircraft...

  • $\begingroup$ I thought conga line might have come from the Berlin Airlift, but could not find any references using that phrase. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 16, 2021 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Might be, I've heard it used in many occasions to describe a meandering line (that's the word I was looking for when I made my post) of anything: ppl, cars, birds, racing sailboats, ants... you name it, they conga 😃 $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jul 16, 2021 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Post references for your answers above. Without references, your answers are little more than the educated guesses. Helpful, but not really $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2021 at 19:25

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